THE UTILITY OF WAR
Victor Davis Hanson,
Military History Quarterly, Winter, 2003
In the thirty years since the American defeat in Vietnam, an array of anti-war catch phrases has permeated our popular culture: “Violence only breeds violence”; “Make love, not war”: “War never solved anything”: and “Give peace a chance.” But behind the popular rhetoric that armed conflict is inherently wrong is the more problematic record of past centuries that suggests such pacifism is not only naive, but even quite dangerous. “theoretical. often utopian, arguments persist against the use of force to solve national and international disputes, as echoed by entrenched peace studies and conflictresolution programs that now abound in our universities.
Military history is rarely taught these days. Even when wars are discussed in culture and history classes. they are not usually considered as being universal occurrences across time and space or as reflecting truth about the human experience in every age. Instead, conflict is presented as senseless, amoral, retrograde, and counterproductive in our own times, which are characterized as exceptional due to the novel threats of rogue nuclear states, international terrorism. and weapons of mass destruction.
The end of the draft in the early 1970s, the creation of professional armies, and the collapse of a bellicose and nuclear Soviet Union have removed the immediate threat of war from the public consciousness. Yet an increasingly affluent and suburban citizenry is more abstractly sensitive to war’s potential dangers and costs than ever before. Perhaps because of a dramatic rise in the standard of living in most Western countries, it is difficult to contemplate forgoing the good life in order to endure the misery and material sacrifices of battle. Instantaneously televised images from the battlefield also ensure that killing appears in our living rooms in brief sound bites-often broadcast apart from tactical, strategic, or moral contexts, and with instant editorializing by inexperienced journalists. Split-second scenes of shooting flash by, often accompanied by narration characterizing such acts as senseless and evil-without explaining who is shooting at whom, and why. There is also a great inconsistency in thinking about the utility of war. Anti-war activists and internationalists sometimes urge the United States to unilaterally employ its overwhelming military force against corrupt, authoritarian, and mostly weak states that spread mayhem among innocent civilians. Intervention of U.S. troops or warplanes to thwart the dictators in Haiti, Somalia, or Bosnia clear-cut moral causes to save thousands-seemed to entail few American casualties, confirming a real need for war. Yet riskier operations against more formidable powers like Iraq are often derided as “bellicose,” even though Saddam Hussein has killed as many innocents as other dreadful despots. Modern Westerners perhaps increasingly define war as just and even necessary when victory is assured and cheap, but sometimes amoral and avoidable when real carnage and sacrifice are possible.
A common tenet of the new pacifism is the notion that war is altogether rare or, in fact, unnatural to the human species. A United Nations body of experts has recently declared war antithetical to man’s nature, as an array of behavioralists adds that we have no innate bellicosity in our genes. Such rosy findings give “scientific” weight in turn to our sociologists and political scientists who favor international conferences and peacekeepers in lieu of U.S. aircraft carriers and Special Forces. Such faith accordingly argues that military investment is unessential, and so defense spending is reluctantly agreed to only when there are immediate adversaries on the horizon. Peace, in contrast, is assumed to be the natural order of events.
Yet history more often proves otherwise.
Note the use of the plural to describe chronic conflict-the Persian Wars (490 B.c.; 480-79 B.c.) or the Punic Wars (264-146 B.c.), Sometimes the noun “years” is necessary nomenclature-Seven Years’ War, Thirty Years’ War, or Hundred Years’ War-to describe chronic fighting. Battles as well are often identified by numerical adjectives-Second Mantinea, First Bull Run, or Third Ypres-suggesting that the same places are the repeated sites of major campaigns. The Germans scattered the French in the Ardennes in spring 1940, before themselves retreating through the same forest in a failed second try in December 1944-a landscape pockmarked by the artillery of World War I. Epaminondas called the great plain of Boeotia the “dancing floor of war”-since the battles of Plataea, Coronea (first and second), Oinophyta, Delium, Haliartus, Tegyra, Leuctra, and Chaeronea were all fought within a few miles of each other.
At the very beginning of Western warfare during the Athenian fifth century, Athens fought wars in two out of every three years. Its power during the twentyseven-year-long Peloponnesian War was finally ended not through the brief armistice of 421 B.c., but only when the Spartans destroyed its last fleet at Aegospotami and forthwith sailed into the Piraeus. Similarly, it would be hard to find a year in the twentieth century in which American troops were not fighting some type of small-scale war in South America, the Pacific, Asia, or Africa. In our own time, we have even resorted to Roman numerals for theater wars on a global scale (World War I and World War II).
Americans often assume that we have not really been at war since Vietnamforgetting in the last two decades alone the occasional bloody fighting in Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Afghanistan. And the enemies in those conflicts have not been uniform or their agendas predictable, as we have tried to enforce armistices, overthrow rightwing dictators, kick out left-wing strongmen, reclaim entire countries, escort oil tankers, stop the genocide of Muslims, feed the starving, and shut down a country-size Islamic terrorist haven. Almost every region of the globe in just the last decade or two has been in turmoil. India has fought three wars against Pakistan for Kashmir. Nearby China has engaged in border skirmishes with Russia and invaded Vietnam-after annexing and occupying Tibet. And the former Soviet Union, whether Russian against Chechen or Azerbaijani against Armenian, has been in as much commotion as during the Cold War when the Communist empire invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan.
The ancient Greeks were empirical rather than theoretical thinkers and therefore based their conclusions on what they saw rather than imagined. They accepted the tragedy of war’s ubiquity-an unfortunately common time, Herodotus said, “when fathers bury sons, rather than sons fathers.” The philosopher Heraclitus remarked that war was the “father of all things,” while Plato remarked that peace, not war, was the true parenthesis of human experience.
The Greeks found tragic the entire idea that innocent young men who neither knew each other nor shared any personal grudges would nevertheless seek to kill each other on the field of battle, without fear of criminal penalty and indeed encouraged to do so by the state. This wastage of manhood was deemed lamentable and often tragic. but not nec essarily rare or always unnecessary, given man’s innate craving for the things not his own and his propensity on a collective level to use force to satisfy those illegitimate appetites. So whether we like it or not, war seems to be omnipresent. We should keep in mind that more people have been killed in fighting in the fifty years of “peace” since, rather than during, the great tragedy of World War II, which saw fifty million destroyed.
If we can accept that war is unfortunately all too common, why does fighting actually break out? Recently, we are told, the causes are twofold: ignorance and misunderstanding. Revisionists have argued that had the Europeans just talked and networked more, then the disaster unleashed by the guns of August 1914 could have been prevented. This is as if to say that England and France were relatively ignorant of Prussian militarism and misinterpreted Germany’s natural concerns for its own safety as proof of imperial aspirations that would threaten the general peace. To continue in this vein, a German victory in 1918 would not have made much difference from an Allied triumph for postwar Europe. The classical exegesis is that wars arise because of perceived, rather than real, grievances, or the idea that although Germany frequently cited French and British transgressions, it in fact wanted political and military power and status in Europe and abroad commensurate with its growing economic and cultural influence. And the kaiser and his advisers decided after the lesson of the easy victory of the Franco-Prussian War that they possessed the infantry to get what Germany wanted at relatively light costs. Given those realities, an ancient Greek would wonder not that war finally broke out in 1914, but rather why it took so long.
In our current crisis, some have urged us to abstain from the use of force andfirst look inward at an array of provocations of American policy in the Middle East, such as our troops being stationed in the autocratic Gulf states, our aid to Israel, or perhaps our own crass culture’s intrusion into traditional Islamic society, in order to fathom the reasons for September 11. Yet this kind of effort in sorting through the causes of the fundamentalists’ ire would be as vain an attempt as viewing September 1, 1939, through Adolf Hitler’s eyes. The Fuhrer created the myth of a crowded Germany, without ample living room, subject to humiliating conditions from World War I, sapped by Jewish financiers, without any choices but war to feed and house a surrounded and aggrieved German people. All that proved to be a more alluring myth than the more cynical reality that Nazism promised wealth, status, and power to Germans without the price of sacrifice. It appeared to be as much an apparent bargain in 1939 as it was a confirmed nightmare to them by 1945. The Greek historian Thucydides thought wars broke out not necessarily because of legitimate grievances over borders, poverty, oppression, or the need for material goods or strategic real estate, but rather just as often out of “fear, honor, and self-interest.” The perceived needs of states, like people, can be vain, insecure, irrational, and unpredictable.
Hunger, even when juxtaposed to affluence, need not cause wars. Witness the fact that Peruvians are not marching against Chileans. Nor are Mexicans suicide-bombing San Diego shopping
centers. Poverty is not necessarily a reason in and of itself to attack one’s neighbors. The West Bank has been the recipient of billions of dollars in aid from the European Union and the United States during the last decade. Yet its hatred of Israel more likely arises out of a Thucydidean sense of honor and humiliation in losing land and prestige to a nearby proud and antithetical power than endemic poverty. Indeed, the September 11 suicide-murders were not the dividends of the slums of Cairo, but rather carried out by the upscale and educated-and bankrolled by a multimillionaire psychopath.
The frequently cited cause of “illegal” occupation of territory can, but need not, incite conflict. Otherwise Tibetans would be terrorizing Chinese while Greek Cypriots might be blowing up Turkish pizzerias. As yet we do not hear that present-day Germany wishes to attack Poland and France for the sizable chunks of the fatherland that were lost to both after 1945. Nor is Japan intent on attacking Russia for its continual occupation of the Sakhalin Islands. Thus to fathom why some border disputes invite war and others do not is to accept that reasons other than real grievances are often at the core of fighting. These considerations include relative power, alliances, the anger or pride of a people, the nature of government, the existence or absence of deterrence, and the past history of the contested area.
Just because nations are aggressive, reckless, or evil and so seek advantages at the expense of their neighbors or rivals does not mean war will always break out. Accidents, of course, and miscommunications, in theory, can trigger wars. But in fact miscalculations often simply hasten the outbreak of a war that is already unavoidable. Despite common belief, rarely does fighting occur because of a failed radio signal or a poor translation of a leader’s communique-unless it is a question of telegraphing a willingness not to retaliate in the face of aggression. Such was the case of the American ambassador to Iraq in summer 1990, who apparently gave the impression to Saddam Hussein that her government would not consider his invasion of Kuwait of interest to the United States.
Instead, once again the Greeks and Romans remind us that the real danger is a lack of deterrence. In the words of Vegetius’ famous dictum, “He who wishes peace, let him prepare for war.” The Cuban missile crisis did not erupt into a nuclear conflagration simply because our hot line with the Soviets was error-free and so ensured reliable communications between Kennedy and Khrushev. More likely, overwhelming American nuclear superiority convinced the Soviets to reconsider removing their weapons from Castro’s island. So far what has prevented Pakistan from bowing to its extremists and attacking India directly is its clear perception that it would lose both a conventional and a nuclear war. Such a balance of power can operate in reverse as well in the nuclear age. Pakistan’s nuclear missiles are plentiful enough to suggest to a stronger India that its likely victory with tanks and troops could be lost through a nightmarish nuclear exchange that would kill millions of its own-victory in essence costing nearly as much as defeat.
By such classical reckoning, al Qaeda attacked our iconic buildings and slaughtered our citizens not because we were particularly anti-Islamic. Who, after all, had saved Afghanistan from godless communism, Kuwait from a rapacious Iraq, Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars from murderous Christian Serbs, and Islamic Somalians from each other? Once more, alleged rather than true gripes-fear of Western popular culture and anger at American presence in the Middle Eastplus a desire for the return of a thirteenthCentury pan-Islamic caliphate are as likely to have created the pretext. During
the prior decade the lack of a strong American response after attacks on our forces in Lebanon, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and during the first World Trade Center bombing emboldened Osama bin Laden and suggested to him that Americans either could not or would not respond in a forceful way to threaten his operations. Perception and rhetoric can often convince states and terrorists alike that aggression may bring benefits at little risk.
Sherman was told that if he went into Georgia he would end up like the French in Russia-massacred by Confederate Cossacks. Even Lincoln and Grant urged another course. But once his ferocious army of sixty-two thousand cut a swath from Atlanta to the sea, proud Georgians urged him to go up to the Carolinas and instead punish those Confederates “who started the war.” Union force and their own suffering, not remorse over slavery or secession, changed the minds of Georgians. If we could ask the dour and pessimistic “Uncle Billy” what was at the heart of the current crisis in the Middle East, he might not request to see a map of Israeli settlements or review purported infractions of the Oslo Accords. Instead, he would emphasize the failure of Israel to retaliate against the dozens of Scud missiles that Saddam Hussein rained on Tel Aviv to the cheers of nearby Palestinians, the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon without conditions, and the willingness to hand over 96 percent of the West Bank. He might then conclude that Israel’s enemies perceived a new and growing unwillingness on the part of the Jewish state to reply to challenges.
If wars are common, derive from irrational reasons, and break out over the perception of weakness, are there general guidelines to determine how they are fought and who wins? Numbers are not always decisive. Otherwise Alexander the Great’s fifty thousand at Gaugamela would have been wiped out by the two hundred thousand of Darius III. Skilled generals like Hannibal or Crazy Horse cannot always ensure success.
Instead, supply, technology, and discipline-or at least the peculiarly Western notion of marching in time, firing in unison, advancing and retreating on command and in order-seem far more important. Lord Chelmsford’s few thousand British colonial troops devastated the Zulu nation in a matter of months, a society in which far more numerous warriors, most physically impressive, quite spirited and equipped with firearms, simply did not have as effective a central command, fire training and control, and logistical capability as the European aggressors. Technology and advanced weaponry, of course, are critical force multipliers. Despite revisionist attempts to argue otherwise, Hernan tortes was able to rally Native Americans between 1519-21 to overthrow the Aztec Empire in a way impossible earlier for restive indigenous subject states largely because his men brought to Mexico horses, crossbows, arquebusses, plate armor, Spanish steel swords and lances, and engineers who could build ships and siege engines. A greater propensity in the West to divorce research from both government and religion, and prominent emphasis on individual freedom and expression, usually ensured that Europeans could either invent or steal superior weapons designs and then fabricate arms in greater numbers and at less cost than could their adversaries. In general, throughout the last twentyfive hundred years Western armies, such as those of the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Spanish, British, French, and Americans, butchered one another without mercy when they turned their similarly equipped and organized militaries against each other, but did far better when fighting militaries that were products of nonwestern traditions. The Persian Wars saw relatively few Greeks killed, but the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was a bloodbath. Crusaders and colonialists projected power in Asia, Africa, and the Americas far beyond the ability the small population or territory of Europe might otherwise suggest. Yet Westerners found Armageddon at places like Gettysburg, Antietam, the Somme, and Verdun, where similar discipline, firepower, training, and logistics were unleashed against each other. Consequently, war’s utility is sometimes predicated on the nature of one’s adversaries. It is one thing to save innocents from Afghan fundamentalists or the Iraqi Republican Guard, quite another to take on the cause of justice in the face of the nuclear arsenal of a Soviet Union, or three million Chinese equipped with Western arms.
How do wars often end? It would be comforting to suggest that if diplomacy cannot always prevent wars, it at least can usually bring them to a rapid close without much bloodshed. Such was the case in the Middle East, where the first five conflicts-1947, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982-ended ,through the pressures of Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But note that the conflict continues there two decades after the war in Lebanon, perhaps because neither side has yet been allowed either to win or lose decisively on the battlefield. Vietnam differs from Korea because the American people gave up the struggle and lost the South, leading to Communist victory and unification. In contrast, the armistice of 1953 means that we still worry about nucleartipped missiles in North Korea despite a “peace” of a half-century. Saddam Hussein was bloodied in 1991. But his survival means that a decade later the same old concerns about poison gas, nuclear weapons, and invasion continue to haunt us. Interrupted wars rarely bring immediate peace, but rather simply raise the hopes on both sides that their enemies will slowly be worn down or demoralized in an extended cold war, and thus at some future date either give up or be unable to reinitiate hostilities.
In contrast, clear victory can settle long-existing problems immediately in a way negotiated armistices cannot, as wounds are closed rather than allowed to fester for decades. Had George McClellan won the 1864 presidential election, a negotiated peace might have temporarily prevented another Antietam. But such a bellum interruptum certainly would have meant another generation of slavery and soon another round of fighting with weapons far more deadly than what finally appeared in 1865. In this regard, we should recall that the exhausted German army of 1918, perhaps qualitatively the most deadly infantry force the world had yet seen, surrendered in France, not Germany, later claiming it had never been defeated in the field but rather was “stabbed in the back” by “Jews, Communists, and traitors” in Germany. General John Pershing’s idea of a victory march into and occupation of Germany was overruled by President Wilson. Such utopianism was not repeated by the Allies in World War II, when the Third Reich and Japan were not merely defeated, but humiliated, their homelands occupied, and their machinery of government radically transformed.
Criticism is often voiced of stern demands for “unconditional surrender,” firmness that purportedly causes needless casualties like at Hiroshima and prolongs the misery of war, as defeated powers dig in rather than have their homelands occupied or destroyed. Yet in the long run an insistence on abject surrender saves lives when truly evil regimes capitulate rather than bargain their way out of humiliation. Japanese citizens vote today because of the beating their grandfathers took on Okinawa and on the homeland from the U.S. Army Air Forces. Yet, had we brokered a deal after Iwo Jima, the wounded imperial government might well have recovered and been as provocative today as is North Korea-a regime that in fact never surrendered to the United States.
In this regard, one unforeseen consequence that arose out of the otherwise brilliant European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was the spread of the canard that evil per se does not exist, but rather is a logical symptom of ignorance, poverty, or other environmental pathology, and thus can be remedied by the requisite amount of education, money, compassion, or material aid. Consequently, liberal states that are locked in disputes with evil autocracies sometimes take the dangerous step of looking inward at first in stunned disbelief and then often engage in self-censure at the deteriorating state of affairs.
Both recently and in the past, Western intellectuals have pondered whether the French and English unfairly cornered an embattled Hitler, deaf to his real grievances from World War I. Did we provoke Japan by cutting off oil exports? And did
the American failure to embrace a young Ho or Mao guarantee that their later regimes would in exasperation turn hostile toward us? How else could we account for their inexplicable hatred, if not for some culpability or lapse of reason on our part? How reductionist it was to simply conclude that Fascists and Communists always strive for the maintenance and expansion of their own power and so must fear elected democracies. Perhaps it would be far wiser to return to the classical, though admittedly pessimistic, notion that evil is inexplicable, eternal, and so is resisted only through moral right coupled with superior military power.
We should appreciate the frequent utility of war, or at least the use of military force to stop aggression, dismantle malevolent states, and kill leadership intent on harming tens of thousands of innocents. The great ills of the last three centuries were largely ameliorated by war, not mediation. Our own freedom from monarchy and tyranny was achieved at Yorktown, not through shuttle diplomacy with London. Without war, the United States, for good or ill, would today probably more resemble Canada, which nearly a century after 1776 was gradually and peacefully evolving toward independence, rather than our own unique and more vibrant culture of radical egalitarianism, individualism, and economic dynamism that was born from musket fire.
A series of compromises for most of the first half of the nineteenth century did not end chattel slavery in America, but rather only prolonged and perhaps in some sense exacerbated the divide between South and North. Instead, Lincoln, with his brilliant military captains, Grant and Sherman, at a cost of some six hundred thousand American dead and billions of dollars in property and capital losses, nevertheless subdued in less than four years the rebellious South-a region as large as Western Europe-and ensured an end to slavery and a united nation for good.
The four great plagues of the twentieth century-German nazism, Italian fascism, Japanese imperialism, and Soviet communism-were all ended either through outright fighting or the threat of war, the butcher’s bill made worse by the delays in using force to thwart such murderous regimes in their infancies. The ancient Greeks kept their freedom only through heroics at Salamis and Plataea. A century and a half after hundreds of thousands of Persians had been defeated and routed, another-and very different-generation of Greeks could not keep a few thousand Macedonians from doing what Xerxes could not. There were thousands of resolute fighters like Themistocles in 480 B.C. but not so many by 350 B.C. who still believed in preventing a foreign invasion from the north, despite the similarly prescient warnings of Demosthenes.
Appeasement of the 1930s, not Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944, is what ultimately cost thousands of American lives-and far more European dead. We should remember that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed more civilians outside the battlefield-perhaps altogether a hundred million in the Holocaust, collectivizations, gulags, purges, and various cultural revolutions-than all the soldiers and innocents lost to the fighting of World War I and II combined. The Hutus of Rwanda and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge butchered millions in executions, not through armed conflict. Yet both slaughters could have been stopped early through determined armed intervention by superior military force.
Sometimes the early use of overwhelming military power can settle issues quickly, humiliate aggressive but weak leaders, and thus result in a change of government that benefits all parties to the conflict, especially in the case of illegitimate regimes that rule without a true consensus of the people. The British decision to invade the Falklands not only led to the expulsion of the Argentinian aggressors, but also discredited military rule in Argentina and gave democracy a chance to displace the generals-neither of which would have been possible through negotiations alone. Does anyone believe that Slobodan Milosevic would have either stopped killing Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovotwo hundred thousand dead by some reports-or given up dictatorial power in Serbia without American bombs, in a war in which no Americans were killed and perhaps less than three thousand civilians lost their lives?
By the same token, President George W. Bush’s decision to strike early against Afghanistan (less than four weeks after September 11) and use overwhelming power to rout the Taliban cost less than a dozen American lives, and perhaps three thousand to four thousand Afghan civilians. The result was to free a populace from a medieval and murderous government that had butchered tens of thousands and turned the entire country into an international haven for terrorists. Despite civilian losses in Panama and a few dozen American dead. recent years without General Manuel Noriega have proved far better for both Panamanians and the United States.
Often the curtailment of war before its natural denouement can result in consequences more murderous than what transpires during the fighting itself. George S_ Patton’s Third Army was within days of occupying Prague Czechoslovakvakia, in May 1945. The Supreme Allied Command’s orders to cease his advance ensured that thousands of Czech insurrectionists would be killed by Nazis in the last days of the war-and that the entire country would suffer a tyrannical Communist slavery for a subsequent half-century. The suspension of the final successful bombing of Hanoi with firstgeneration “smart bombs,” often targeted at the Communist elite, ensured North Vietnamese aggression and violation of the January 1973 peace accords-and ultimately the murder, internment, or exile of between 1.5 and 2 million Vietnamese. We do not know how many Kurds and Shiites were butchered by Saddam Hussein after the armistice of 1991, but hundreds of women and children were murdered in sight of allied troops who were under orders not to intervene. War is a terrible thing, but sometimes there are events even worse-whose remedies sadly are found only in fighting.
How, then, do statesmen and leaders decide when and with whom to go to war? As a general rule, despite the evidence from the internecine warring of the consensual Greek citystates, democracies usually are less likely to war with other democracies. That general, though not infallible, rule suggests that coalitions of constitutional states can form alliances against illegitimate regimes whose citizens do not vote. The European Union and the United States can agree in general terms that Milosevic’s Serbia or Saddam Hussein’s Iraqtwo rogue states that attacked seven of their neighbors in the last two decadesare enemies of freedom and must be either defeated or constrained. In that sense, the greater the number of democratic states that arise, the less the chance that tyrants and despots will instigate aggression abroad to silence domestic opposition or satisfy their own megalomaniac agenda that is without either democratic audit or judicial restraint. Before 1990, Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union threatened world peace and were havens for international terrorists. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the spread of democracy, they evolved into more humane societies actively engaged with the West in rooting out terrorists and eager to aid, if not join, NATO.
By the same token, ample defense spending is critical in times of peace. Then prosperity and occasional license convince free citizens that Plato’s idea of peace as a “parenthesis” is mistaken, and that we have instead reached a new level of perpetual understanding and enlightenment, far removed from the shoving and elbowing of a Hobbesian unending “war of everyone against everyone.” American military poweraugmented and enhanced years before Mullah Omar was even known-ensured that we could destroy the Taliban and bring good government to Afghanistan. In contrast, the prior impression that we were afraid to use our military to good effect may well have encouraged the suicide murderers of September 11. And had the terrorists hit the Eiffel Tower, it is not at all clear that either France or the European Union possessed the ships, planes, or logistical capability to invade Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban. Deterrence keeps the peace, but is only achievable through military power and a clear indication to act when aggression proves immune to diplomacy.
Perhaps ancient Greek philosophers were right, after all: War per se is not evil, but rather its morality hinges on the reasons for, and the manner under which, individual wars are fought. Appeasing Hitler in the 1930s ensured the Holocaust; standing up to him in 1936 might have saved millions of soldiers and civilians alike. Simply invading North Vietnam and destroying the Communist dictators in Hanoi would have been a more moral act than either carpetbombing South Vietnam or allowing a Communist victory and the subsequent murder and exile of millions.
Until the nature of man changes, such a pessimistic acknowledgment of endemic evil and the need to confront it with force seems the safer course for national security than entrusting our safety to collective deliberative bodies such as the United Nations or the World Court, none of which has the power to protect Americans from armed aggression. And we should also remember that our military is not always defensive and solely the insurer of our own survival. In the last decades it quite literally has proved to be the only force in the world that could save captive Kuwaitis, starving Somalis, doomed Kosovars, or unfree Afghans.
In the final analysis, Americans have hoped that reasoned negotiations could have given us our independence, eliminated slavery, shut down the death camps, or ended Balkan genocide. Yet we accept in our imperfect world that such good and necessary things were instead brought about only by bullet, cannon, and bomb.
VICTOR DAvis HANSON is an MHQ contributing editor. His many books include An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 and the War on Terrorism (Anchor Books, 2002).